The 100th anniversary of the long drawn out and bloody WWI battle of the Somme will be soon be upon us ie. July 1st.
As is already known, many of the British soldiery who were casualties in that murderous encounter were drawn from all over the island of Ireland.
What is not so well known is that the British casualty rate on the Somme would have been far higher but for the spontaneous action of the their opposing enemy German soldiers to cease firing on the exposed and vulnerable British soldiers - the unfortunates had become entangled on the German barbed wire defences which were strewn with British dead and dying.
According to a Dutch historian, J.H.J Andriessen, the German soldiers were sickened at the sight of thousands upon thousands of defenceless young British soldiers been needlessly mown down in front of their noses, so to speak, and stopped firing.
The WWI German machine gun used in the battle was devastating - it had a rate of fire of 500 rounds a minute and an effective range of approximately 2,000 meters. It would appear that the British military leadership had not learned the lesson from the earlier German attack on Verdun.
At Verdun, the German high command had incorrectly assumed that if they laid down a mighty artillery barrage it would clear away the French defences, including barbed wire. It just didn’t happen. The attacking German losses were frightful; in all there were about one million casualties at Verdun between German, French and British soldiers.
It is interesting that some thing similar to the German humanitarian gesture, on the Somme, happened during the terrible battles on the Italian Alps. According to Mark Thompson, Austria-Hungarian soldiers stood up on the mountainous front line and begged the attacking Italians to stop heedlessly throwing their lives away in a futile frontal mountain assault. About one million Italians and German-Austrians died on that front.
There was an even more devastating battle on the Eastern front, beginning in July 1916, between Russia, under General Aleksei Brusilov, and Germany and its allies, including Hungarian-Austrian armies. The former’s losses were about one million and the latters’ about 950,000, including 600,000 Austria-Hungarians and 350,000 German forces.
Austria-Hungary was effectively out of the war as a result of its losses on the Eastern front arising from this Russian campaign. The Russians, despite achieving an astounding victory, were exhausted and requested assistance from their British and French allies, but this was not forthcoming and as a result the Russians were unable to take advantage of their victory and advance further i.e. take the war into Austria itself and possibly force its surrender and end the war.
We should be very grateful that we, in the family of Europeans, have been so blessed and we have not had to face such terrible internecine conflict - as described above, these past 70 years.
Micheal O’Cathail, Fermanagh